Shopping in Shanghai, or the art of bargaining

Great prices, the whole world’s factories and a myriad of different products, shopping in Shanghai is a must-do for anyone spending some time in this exciting and state-of-the-art city.

shopping in shanghai
At the jade factory in Beijing

Shopping and bargaining in Shanghai, my personal experience

As I soon learned, when shopping in Shanghai, like for drinking tea, bargaining is an art too.

Even though by now many residents in China understand and speak English enough to communicate with you and give you information, you  might want to carry with you a handy Mandarin Chinese Phrase Book and a map.

The first step, obviously, is to ask how much the product we want to buy is: Duo Shao Qian? (in characters: 多少钱). Even before you have the time to follow up with the ritual Tai Gui Le! (太贵了!) – It’s too expensive! – and ask to go cheaper: Pian Yi Dian r Ba? (便易点儿吧?), the shop assistants have already put a big calculator under your nose.

“Ok, tell me your best price” – would be the most common suggestion. And this is when the bargaining starts.

shopping in shanghai
Bonsai at the flowers, birds and insects market in Shanghai (Shopping in Shanghai)

The more you do it, the more you understand why it can be considered an art. It’s a fine psychological battle between you and the seller. You are obviously in a stronger position when you don’t really want the product, maybe you were just inquiring about the price but without a specific intention to buy it. This is when you can bargain better.

For example, at the beginning of the big cold here in Shanghai, I needed a warm winter hat. I went to the market and found only one I thought I could like. I tried it on, it would fit me but not as much as I hoped. At first I wanted it, but then keeping looking at myself in the mirror I started slowly changing my mind.

The initial price was 280 yuan, about 28 pounds sterling. “Now way,” I said. “Maximum I can spend 70 yuan for this hat.”  Then the shopkeepers started going down to 240, 220, 200. I would stay on my 70 because I didn’t really want it.

Then I decided to think about it and have a look at other shops in the hope to find something I would like more. I told the sales assistants and left their shop. One followed me with my hat in her hands and offering it for 50 yuan, 20 less than my suggested price. Of course I bought it then, even if I wasn’t too convinced.

shopping in shanghai
Stones at the flower, birds and insects market in Shanghai

Now, in this particular occasion I don’t really know who was the good bargainer. Ok, I bought it for 50 yuan when the original price was 280, but after all they made me buy something I didn’t want anymore.

Chinese sellers truly have a knack for entering their customers’ minds, and they really understand when people are dying for an item.

This is when the bargaining becomes a challenge for the customer, and when they need to “act” as if they don’t really want to buy. Of course, easier said than done.

What customers should keep in mind is that China is the world’s factory, they produce everything in large scale, so they really want to sell.

shopping in shanghai
Candies’ street vendor in Shanghai

If they absolutely refuse to go down with the price, the reasons can be two: they really can’t, meaning that if they accept your price they don’t make any earning themselves, or it’s a busy day and they know they will sell the item you want to other customers very easily. This is why it’s always best to avoid shopping in China during the weekend.

Apart from buying at convenient prices, I’m finding shopping in Shanghai is the best way to practice my Chinese.

It goes without saying that my accent causes everybody’s hilarity, but never mind, I like to think that Chinese is awfully difficult.

Entering Shanghai’s Ancient City, Shopping in Shanghai

This being said, there are some cases when I can’t bargain. One of these is at the tailor shop. By all means I ask for the best price they can offer, and I know that they inevitably charge more, but I’m paying for their work, and I don’t feel comfortable bargaining too much.

Maybe it doesn’t really make sense, as in the other shops they might not have produced the things they sell but they do work for 8+ hours a day and they do get commission on what they sell.

As for many other occasions, also the bargaining process is chatty, funny and most of all, very loud.

In Europe is not even conceivable to bargain a price, and when I went to Istanbul I couldn’t bargain much because sellers were way too tough, but in China everything takes the form of an art, a social ceremony.

All Chinese style, easygoing and down-to-earth.

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23 Comments
  1. E’ un articolo molto interessante, complimenti! Al solito, belle le foto!

  2. Les photos sont très belles, l’article absolument interessant et amusant! La prochaine fois que j’irai à Shangai j’essaierai l’art du ” bargaining”!
    Marie

  3. Bargaining to me is a like a sport. When I’m in the mood, win or lose I always end up with a smile on my face. At other times, it can be tiring and uninspiring. But like you mentioned, it’s a really good way to learn your numbers in a foreign language :)

    • True, I too need to be in the mood. I know it requires some energies, so if I’m not really keen, I just avoid going. Although sometimes I went totally in a hurry and I got the best prices.. Maybe because they saw I was going to leave anyway..

  4. Reply
    Jack - eyeflare travel tips March 18, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Great post, I love bargaining in markets. Given my limited language skills, it’s a challenge and I’m not all that good at it. BTW, you’re making Shanghai look really interesting, never had much interest in seeing China, but you’re selling it pretty well.

  5. I find it so hard to bargain in some of these countries, as a) the price isn’t bad to begin with and b) I feel so bad taking money away from the local craftsmen…though I know I SHOULD do it, sometimes I just go with the original price–unless, of course, it’s way more than the product is worth!

    • I know what you mean, I don’t bargain with local craftsmen. Here in China usually you can bargain in fake markets, where most of the things are copies of original brands. You can also find other products but veyr likely they are all produced together in large scale. When it comes to craftsmen and tailors I don’t bargain.
      When I went to India I bought from local craftsmen in different cities, and I realized in the first places they had charged me some 3 times more than due. But I saw so much poverty in India that it makes it hard to bargain even if you do realize you are paying too much.

  6. Oh, I love your little explorations around Shanghai! I’d been there but only for 2 days though and only got to admire the Bund area at night but I was able to experience the biggest event called World Expo 2010 in Shanghai…. I do like to explore more this country like what you did, who knows I’ll have a good bargain too… Thanks…:)

    • Thanks, glad you liked it, by all means visit Shanghai again, it’s worth it, and if you speak a little Chinese you can bargain very well ;)

  7. I am terrible at haggling for a good price, I hate asking for less and I walk away too soon.

    • In China they don’t let you walk away so easily, they just give you the calculator and ask you what price you want to pay, you *have* to bargain :P

  8. An insects market?! You’d have to pay me to take home an insect…

    • Eheh at the insect market many were buying crickets, there was a man carefully choosing the best one! Ugh…

  9. So what was your best ‘special price’ ;) Haggling is the same all around the world!

    • eheh You are not a good observer, haggling has different nuances everywhere ;) In every country you haggle better after you stay for a while. My special price depends on the occasion, basically after a year I was in Shanghai I knew all the products’ “real prices”, which tourists can’t know if they stay for only a week, and that was usually my “special price” ;)

  10. how to buy, jade: boat, dragon etc. my country indonesia. 081291555468. please email address: At the jade factory in Beijing,thanx

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